First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, the San Diego Organizing Project of PICO

UU Congregations & CBCO: Success Stories

This report from Dr. Fred Siedl, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Congregation-Based Community Organizing (CBCO) Consultant, is a compilation of reports by church members Sue Haskin and Derek Staats with some of Dr. Seidl’s observations gleaned in visiting the church and Sand Diego Organizing Project (SDOP).

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego is active in a range of social justice issues. The church, with about eight hundred members, has a large Social Action Committee with twelve action sub-groups, one of which is named “Organizing for Justice.” The church’s involvement began about six years ago when a member of the congregation brought information about San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP) to the church’s attention and helped to organize a luncheon at which SDOP organizers gave a presentation. The now retired co-minister, Carolyn Owen-Towle supported the church seriously considering and later participating in SDOP. She stayed with the working group all the way. When SDOP actions were pending, she encouraged members to participate; she gave invocations at SDOP actions and faith reflections at SDOP training and at the congregation’s action on affordable housing with a City Council member.”

At the time of First UU’s initial participation, SDOP’s main agenda item was Proposition MM, a bond issue that was to repair and refurbish neighborhood schools. First UU responded by establishing a board-approved working group under the Social Action umbrella, “Organizing for Justice,“ and accepted the SDOP Proposition agenda as one they wished to address. SDOP had further identified broad areas of engagement: education, health care for the uninsured and affordable housing. The Organizing for Justice Group has not found it necessary to add to the list.

The broader church community was engaged through one-on-ones (a technique used to conduct short to lengthy interviews with every church member through phone or face to face meetings and very occasionally e-mail), articles in the church bulletin, announcements from the pulpit, and sign up sheets after Sunday services. Notifications of pending actions went to those listed on email and telephone lists who had attended previous actions.

Two members of the church have taken People Improving Communities through Organizing's (PICO’s) national training. Others have taken training provided by an SDOP organizer at the church.

There have been difficulties and some still remain. Currently, with the retirement of Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle, the visibility of UUs at SDOP events and meetings has decreased as has general participation by church members. It is not that there are objections to SDOP participation, it is that attention about the future of the church has taken center stage. Also, interfaith issues have arisen with “far-right” Christian pastors with the UU delegation advocating for a more ecumenical approach to prayers, faith reflections and in general business activities.

SDOP has impressive organizers in Stephanie Gut, who serves as Executive Director and Kevin Malone, staff organizer.

The organization has been effective in several areas, including housing. Beginning some three years ago, leaders in the various churches were telling SDOP staff that the highest priority problem to their people was affordable housing. While not solving the problem, SDOP has been able to make a difference.

SDOPs housing committee began a research process in Fall of 2001 which involved the identification of decision makers, stake holders and knowledgeable representatives in the area of affordable housing. This meant meeting with city council members and staff, and in a matter of a few months, SDOP was putting together a platform and planning actions with city council members and the mayor. This platform included calling a housing emergency for the City of San Diego and appointing an affordable housing task force.

In June of 2002, about 1500 people attended an action that included 4 council members. That meeting was followed by another in which the mayor relented and called a housing day in August. Three of the four planks of the SDOP housing agenda were passed by the Council. The fourth plank was passed in September and a task force was soon appointed, including twelve San Diegans including a priest from an SDOP church.

The task force made sixty recommendations, almost all of which were supported by SDOP, and another action was held in support of the report of the task force and its recommendations. The Council subsequently approved $55 million of unused redevelopment money for affordable housing and passed an ordinance requiring landlords to provide a reason, from an approved list, for tenants evicted provided the tenant had been in residence for two years or more. The going has been tougher for other revenue sensitive recommendations. It is clear now, that SDOP has standing with the Council and members often call SDOP.

Currently, six to eight First UU members consistently attend meetings, and for a large action two years ago, about one hundred First UU congregants turned out. There continues to be good general support from the congregation.